Gender Difference in Stress Management: “Fight or Flight” vs “Tend and Befriend” Stress Responses
When stressed, women tend to nurture and men to withdraw. This gender bias towards stress management goes in favor of women whose preferred stress coping strategy is “tend and befriend” as opposed to “fight or flight” which appears rather primitive in contemporary society.
- “Fight or Flight” Stress Mechanism
- “Tend and Befriend” Stress Response of Females
- Chemistry of “Tend and Befriend” Response
“Fight or Flight” Stress Mechanism
In 1932 Walter Cannon coined the phrase “fight or flight” to suggest that stress triggers two primordial reactions—hitting back or running away. Since then this concept has dominated scientific thinking to the extent that people take it to be the only mechanism through which people manage stress in their lives. This concept found further support from biochemical investigations which revealed release of chemicals such as epinephrine and norepinephrine activated by the sympathetic nervous system whenever a challenging situation arises. This is outwardly manifested in the form of increase in blood pressure, heart rate and cortisol levels.
This “fight or flight” is more of a reminder of situations in the past when people were subjected to life threatening situations. In modern society, those types of threats are rare. Now people are least likely to encounter a tiger ready to pounce upon them or to have a cobra chasing them. Nature of threats is considerably different in the modern society; people now panic when they find themselves face to face with situations such as a traffic jam, crash of computer hard disc, a nasty boss, a probable job loss, ditched by girl/boy friend, etc. None of these can be termed life threatening in the right frame of mind but the emotional panic is quite profound.
Even in such entirely different “threatening situations” the hormonal response is triggered; hence, the idea of “fight or flight” has prevailed and reigned for over six decades. However, when researchers reviewed the stress research data, it was noticed that the subjects (both human and animal) were predominantly male, only 17% subjects were female who often failed to exhibit the fight-or-flight reaction. Any deviant female response was almost always considered suspicious due to their monthly fluctuations in hormone levels. As a result, data included in the final conclusions remained representative of male behavior only and since the concept of “fight or flight” appeared logical people rarely tried to look beyond for a more accurate picture. However, the landscape of stress research changed in 1995 when the government grant policies changed.
Now researchers believe that “fight or flight” is only part of a bigger picture, stress can also elicit another behavioral pattern – "tend and befriend" – especially in females.
“Tend and Befriend” Stress Response of Females
Compared to males, females' physical aggression and fear-related behaviors are less intense, more "cerebral", and are less tied to physiological arousal. So while both sexes share the capacity for fight or flight, females seem to use it less – This was the conclusion of Dr Shelley Taylor of UCLA and coworkers who studied stress responses of various species ranging from rats to monkeys to people in diverse cultures, for 30 years.
Thus, Dr Taylor recognized that women, by and large, respond differently to stressful situations. They often reach out to others, call friends, ask for advice, and share with neighbors and coworkers; men, other hand, generally prefer to isolate and “suffer in silence”. Women do, however, exhibit fight-or-flight reaction under sudden stress, but soon fall back to what is termed “tend and befriend” tendency by nurturing their kids or connecting with others.
Explaining this from an evolutionary perspective, Dr. Taylor described this as an adaptive behavior. Historically, women have had the primary responsibility of care giving. Fighting or fleeing in difficult times were never good options as thatcould have left offspring alone and defenseless. The other alternative available to them was to bond together with other women and get social support.
Studies by psychologist Rena Repetti in the late 1990's showed that after a hard day at work, women were much more nurturing toward their children, whereas men withdrew from family life. Research by psychologist Tiffany Field, anthropologist Jay Kaplan and others also found that tending young and affiliating with friends dramatically reduces stress in humans and other animals, resulting in improved immune function, mood and a host of other rewards. While it makes sense that women must care for their offspring even in challenging situations, an additional explanation comes from hormonal research.
Chemistry of “Tend and Befriend” Response
Researchers suspect that endorphins – proteins that help alleviate pain – and oxytocin, a female reproductive hormone, may play an important role in establishing this pattern, while factors like learning and social conditioning help to maintain it.
In trying circumstances, males produce androgens such as testosterone along with cortisol, a stress hormone. Females, however, produce oxytocin – a hormone often associated with care and affection between a mother and infant. This hormone also creates a sense of relaxation and reduces fear. Although oxytocin is produced in males also, their higher levels of testosterone reduce the oxytocin levels, so males fail to benefit from its calming effects.
Both oxytocin and endorphins may also contribute to the second piece of the puzzle – females' tendency to "befriend." There is research to suggest that females across cultures have tendency to affiliate with other females. This tendency increases during times of stress. Taylor's team concludes that befriending is the primary gender difference in adult human’s responses to stress.
Additionally, when female animals engage in “tend and befriend” behaviors, even more oxytocin is released, causing further reduction in stress.
It has long been known that social support buffers stress for both women and men. The contemporary benefits of “tend and befriend” seem fairly clear, regardless of what was advantageous centuries or millions of years ago. It is for us to think that in a civil society why a nasty boss or traffic jam should elicit the same wild response as a chasing cobra or a threatening tiger millennium ago.
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